Emma Willshire has overcome plenty of obstacles in her life. From student bride to single mum of a son, Owen, but she has found happiness with her second husband, Paul and another child, Mollie. Emma’s dark days seem far behind her until a fatal accident happens at Paul’s work and he is held responsible.
On holiday in France, Paul’s behaviour turns erratic. On impulse, he buys a cheap, dilapidated property and, to Emma’s dismay, persuades her they can renovate it into a holiday home.
Back in England, their problems spiral out of control. Escape to a new life in France seems the only solution but with heart-breaking loss for Emma. As the couple strive to renovate their ruin and open a small business, shadows from the past threaten their happiness and safety. Because, how can you build a new life on toxic foundations?
As I set down the tray and pour the coffee, Paul turns and attempts a smile, but it won’t stick to his face. He sits down heavily on an armchair.
“What is it?” I ask, feeling his hand tremble as I pass him a mug.
“It’s happened.” He rocks forward and perches on the edge of his seat. “I’m going to be made redundant.”
Shock sucks oxygen from my lungs. “What? They can’t do that!” He hangs his head. “You must fight it. Take them to a tribunal.”
“I wish it was that simple. Manning called me in for ‘a chat’ and asked me to sign a bloody compromise agreement.”
I find a tissue stuffed in my cardigan sleeve, dab my face and crumple it in my fist.
“Say something, Emma.”
I can’t. I don’t want a row. I know I ought to throw my arms around him and comfort him but I blurt out, “How much will you get?” Before the words are out of my mouth, I know I’ve said the wrong thing.
Paul’s chin jerks up, as if I’ve punched him. “Not much. Only been there two years.”
“But why now? Is it because of Dorek’s death?”
“Who can say? The report’s still not out but everyone blames me. Perhaps it would have happened anyway. Since the accident, Manifold’s work’s fallen off a cliff. They mismanaged the PR and new clients won’t touch us.” White-faced, he bangs his mug down on the table and I realise I’m the only one he can vent his wrath on; I’m the only one here. “Plus, they’re insisting I work part of my notice.”
I grope for words to comfort him, but my head is tangled with worries about the children and their future.
“I thought they’d put me on gardening leave,” Paul continues. “Give me space to look for another job but Manning refused. He says he’s going to take over my work for a while. I’d say that’s impossible but it’s not my problem.”
“I’m so sorry—” I begin but he cuts me off.
“I don’t give a damn.”
I sit down heavily on the sofa and something sharp jabs my buttock. It’s a knitting needle, attached to the Aran sweater I’m making for Mollie. I pick it up and stare at the complex pattern.
Paul watches me with sullen eyes. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” My ball of wool drops to the floor, rolls towards Paul’s armchair. With a reflex movement of his foot, he taps it back towards me as if it were a football.
“There’s worse,” he says. “No way I can dress this up. We’ll have to sell the house.”
I stare at him. I can’t swallow. “What the hell do you mean? We’d be mad to do that.”
“If we don’t sell the house, we’ll lose it. I increased the mortgage and haven’t kept up the payments. The outstanding loan might be more than the house is worth.”
I gape at him. Rain hammers on the window pane. I stay silent.
“Say something, Emma!”
“How could you do that without telling me?” This is like a soap opera. This doesn’t happen in real life.
“It was when Mollie wasn’t sleeping and you were exhausted. I didn’t want to add to your worries.”
“So instead, you put Mollie, and our whole family, at risk?”
“I’m sorry.” His face is set hard and wrinkles mark his brow. He reaches out and tries to draw me to him. I sense he’s trembling and I stiffen. “We have to face this together. My redundancy pay-off will help, but it isn’t enough. If we don’t sell quickly, the house will be repossessed.”
“And where will we live?”
“We’ll work something out.”
We stumble across to the sofa and sit down, his hip bone pressing against mine. I close my eyes and memories of our years together crowd my mind. Years when Paul has been supporting me and my son, because my former husband’s child maintenance payments were erratic. Could this have contributed to his financial problems? I remember how Paul mended the rift between me and my parents; how he took time off work to support me when Mollie wouldn’t sleep and I was plagued with migraines. Isn’t that what ‘in sickness and in health’ is all about? Now we’re in the next phase ‘for richer for poorer,’ and it’s my turn to stand by him. I remind myself that the house and mortgage were Paul’s territory from before we were married. Was that why I’ve never insisted he shared the details with me? Because it would have felt like trespass?
Paul stutters more apologies, “I shouldn’t be putting you and the kids through this. It’s all my fault.”
Outside our window, rain hammers down, but the eye of the storm has moved on.
“I’ve had it with this life, Emma.” Paul tilts his head up and meets my eyes. “The hours, the stress. I want a fresh start.”
I understand now where this is leading. There’s a pattern and everything is connected—I should have worked it out.
“You mean France, don’t you? You never intended it to be just a holiday home.”
Helen Matthews is the author of Lies Behind the Ruin, a contemporary suspense novel set in France, to be published in April 2019 by Hashtag Press. Her debut novel After Leaving the Village, published in 2017, won first prize for the opening pages of a novel at Winchester Writers’ Festival. Born in Cardiff, she read English at the University of Liverpool and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University. Helen’s short stories and flash fiction have won prizes and been published in Reflex Fiction, Ad Hoc, Artificium, Scribble and Love Sunday. Her freelance journalism has been published in the Guardian and broadcast on BBC radio. She is an ambassador for Unseen, a charity that campaigns to end human trafficking and modern slavery.
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